In the space of about a decade, Vanderbilt has gone from being a regional darling—What’s that quaint old saying? “The Harvard of the South”?—to a fierce global competitor in its own right.
No longer content to live in the shadow of any other institution, today Vanderbilt vies for the absolute best students anywhere in the world, attracting them with academic, cultural and financial-aid offerings that make even the most determined Ivy aspirants think twice.
Those with deep ties to Vanderbilt are the biggest champions of these efforts, of course. But the rapid pace of change is enough to make one’s head spin. That’s why we decided to take a deep dive into the world of admissions with this special report in Vanderbilt Magazine—not because a few isolated indicators such as admission rates or application volumes define a school, but because it’s the first step on a much longer path that will shape Vanderbilt, and other schools like it, for the generations that follow.
We start by examining the experience of parents and prospective students—particularly Vanderbilt legacies—who are applying to selective colleges today. We also explore what’s at stake for Vanderbilt and similar institutions in assembling increasingly competitive classes of first-year students. Why, for example, does it make sense to attract 30,000 applications for just 1,600 spots? Finally, we look at how expansion of financial aid through Opportunity Vanderbilt is serving a vital role in a broader effort not only to raise the school to new heights but also to create a living–learning environment that’s second to none.
Paul Conkin, MA’53, PhD’57, Distinguished Professor of History, emeritus, in his authoritative Vanderbilt biography, Gone with the Ivy, writes about the founding gifts bestowed upon the university by Cornelius Vanderbilt: “The Commodore, once committed to this venture, desired only the best.” Nearly 150 years later, that’s exactly what he’s getting.
By any measure Sarah Lane was a strong candidate when she applied for admission to Vanderbilt in 2009. A soon-to-be graduate of a Nashville private school, she had excellent grades, strong test scores, an impressive résumé filled with extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation from well-regarded Vanderbilt alumni. Moreover, both of her parents, her grandfather and two great-aunts all had attended the university.
But when Sarah received word that she’d been put on the waitlist by Vanderbilt—her top choice and a place that had played a big role in her life growing up—the whole family was stunned.
“We were not happy,” says her mother, Helen Lane, BS’80. “Steve [Lane, BE’78, ME’91] and I are both active alumni and did everything we could within bounds to help her get in. But while it was disappointing, I can’t say it was totally unexpected. I know how difficult it is to get into Vanderbilt these days.”
And so does Sarah. Near the end of her senior year, she had all but given up on going to Vanderbilt and was planning to attend Washington University in St. Louis instead.
Then on May 4, 2009—yes, she remembers the exact date—Sarah received some unexpected and exciting news. Her college guidance counselor, Laura, knocked on the door of Sarah’s AP Calculus classroom and beckoned her into the hallway.
“I’m pretty sure everyone in my class knew what was going on. Laura told me I’d gotten in, and I was thrilled,” says Sarah, who graduated from Vanderbilt in 2013. Today she works as a senior consultant in the Chicago office of Capgemini, a global management consulting company.
MORE ANXIETY, MORE APPLICATIONS
Getting admitted to a top-tier university like Vanderbilt, which currently is ranked No. 16 among national universities by U.S. News & World Report, is an increasingly competitive endeavor these days. The reason for this can be explained in part by simple mathematics: While enrollment at U.S. colleges has declined overall in recent years, the volume of applications submitted by high school students continues to rise.
According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, between 1990 and 2011 the number of freshmen who had submitted applications to three or more colleges jumped from 61 to 79 percent. An even sharper increase occurred during that same time period among freshmen who had submitted seven or more applications: from 9 to 29 percent. In other words, today nearly one in every three students applying for college submits more than seven applications.
Amid this flood of potential candidates, admission rates have dropped to all-time lows, particularly at top-ranked colleges. Places like Stanford and Harvard have seen their rates plummet to 5 percent, and several other universities, including Vanderbilt, have seen a similar drop. As of June 15, after receiving more than 31,000 first-year applications, Vanderbilt’s admission rate stood at 11.6 percent. That’s down from a recent high in 1999 when the university admitted about 61 percent of applicants.
Steve Frappier, who until this summer served as director of college counseling at Ransom Everglades School, an independent college preparatory school for grades 6–12 in Coconut Grove, Florida, says today’s students often “play the field,” applying to a wide array of schools to protect against denials.
“Many high school students, particularly those who are the first in their families to attend college or those without access to college counseling resources, do benefit from the platform of the [online] Common Application”—which allows a student to apply to multiple colleges at the same time—says Frappier, whose school has been a main feeder to Vanderbilt for years. (This summer he accepted a job as director of college counseling at Atlanta’s Westminster Schools, another strong source of candidates for Vanderbilt.) “But as counselors we are certainly asking whether it has become too easy to apply.”
RECRUITING AND RANKINGS
As influential as it is, the Common App only partly explains the shifting admissions landscape, says Janet Schneider, BA’73, MAT’76, director of college counseling at University School of Nashville (USN). During her 40-year tenure at the independent K–12 school, she has witnessed several national trends that have transformed her profession.
The first of these, she says, occurred during the 1980s when there was a dip in the college-age demographic following the graduation of so many baby boomers. To fill vacancies, colleges began actively recruiting students with targeted mailings and high school visits, and that process has only intensified over time.
Meanwhile, in 1983, U.S. News & World Report sent shock waves through higher education when it began publishing its annual rankings of colleges and universities. These and similar rankings have shaped not only how institutions operate but also how prospective students research colleges and make their decisions.
In reaction to these factors, colleges created formalized enrollment management offices during the ’90s and early 2000s. These offices have effectively elevated admissions to a science by adopting a more methodical, data-driven approach for recruiting students and assembling incoming classes.
“When colleges needed more students to be assured of stable budgets and long-term success, they hired these positions to work with data and do really effective marketing,” says Schneider, who currently teaches a course in college counseling as an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. “That move has helped increase applications and improve yield rates, both of which feed into the rankings.”
As these national trends have taken root, the job of a high school guidance counselor has grown increasingly complex. Schneider points to the evolution of USN’s counseling office as evidence of this. In the ’70s she was the sole counselor at the school, and even then it was just part-time work, with the rest of her attention directed toward teaching. Today she heads an office of four full-time employees, all of whom are devoted to assisting students and parents with the admissions process.
“Early in my career it was just me and the student figuring out what we were going to do. I rarely saw a parent,” she says. “But now it has become such a major event. We have seven parent support meetings during junior year and nine more during the fall of senior year.”
LETTING GO OF LEGACIES
While many factors are involved in admission decisions, from academic achievement to athletic prowess to overcoming adverse circumstances, “there’s ultimately no magic formula for getting into these top colleges,” Schneider says. Even something that often was a trump card in the past—having “legacy” status as the child of an alumnus—is no longer as much of an advantage.
Sarah Lane found this out firsthand when she was placed on Vanderbilt’s waitlist.
“We were surprised because Sarah’s test scores were more than adequate and her grades were more than adequate,” says her father, Steve Lane, president of Nashville-based engineering firm Smith Seckman Reid Inc. “Not to mention, Helen and I are both still very involved with the university.” Steve, in fact, was instrumental in establishing the Smith Seckman Reid Engineering Scholarship at Vanderbilt in 2003, along with fellow SSR colleagues Rob Barrick, BE’74, EMBA’83, and Kenny Diehl Jr., BS’75.
Both Steve and Helen experienced a less rigorous admissions process when they applied decades ago. Steve qualified academically and was helped by the fact that he was recruited by then-Head Baseball Coach Larry Schmittou, BS’62, to pitch for the Commodores. Helen, whose father (Walter Hardcastle, BE’53) and two aunts both attended the university, says Vanderbilt was the only place to which she applied and that getting in then didn’t seem nearly as daunting as it does today.
“Back then, if you met the academic requirement, you pretty much knew you were going to get in. You really didn’t have to worry,” says Helen, an executive vice president at c3/consulting, a management consulting firm based in Nashville. “But now there are all these kids with amazing profiles—better than what any of us ever had—and they still get turned down.”
Douglas Christiansen, Vanderbilt’s vice provost for university enrollment affairs and dean of admissions and financial aid, says the university welcomes legacy candidates wholeheartedly: “We love taking alumni legacies. They accept our offers at a higher rate than others, and the whole family usually has an affinity for the school.”
But as the rest of the world discovers Vanderbilt, invariably it has become tougher to get in. This year the university fielded about 2,600 legacy applications for a total of 1,600 seats in the freshman class.
“We’re in a time when all the stakes have gone up,” Christiansen says.
If there was one bright side to Sarah’s being put on the waitlist at Vanderbilt, Helen says, it was that it made her daughter “realize how much she wanted to go there.” Growing up so close to campus in a very pro-Vanderbilt household, Sarah was almost too familiar with the university by the time she entered high school and couldn’t fully appreciate all it had to offer.
“I grew up going to all the games and would often wear my little Vandy cheerleader outfit,” she says. “So by the time I was in high school, I wanted to try something different, or so I thought.”
But during her junior year of high school, at the urging of her parents, she took an official campus visit, which afforded her a different perspective on the university. “When I took that visit, I actually fell in love with the place,” says Sarah, who earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering science and economics. “I realized that’s where I wanted to be, even though it was so close to home.”
When Sarah got the news from her counselor that she’d finally been admitted, she didn’t have to think twice about switching her plans. She knew she’d found, in her words, “the perfect place.”
And therein lies the challenge facing applicants to Vanderbilt, particularly the college-aged children of alumni. A closer look at campus is sometimes all it takes to sway prospective students who otherwise may have gone elsewhere, including to some of the very top institutions in the country.
“I tell families that if they have not seen Vanderbilt lately, then it’s time,” says Frappier. “Vanderbilt offers a unique combination: a medium-sized community, majors that students want, beautiful facilities, and a Division I sports culture—all within the context of a city that is really accessible for college-aged students.
“In nine years of counseling at [Ransom Everglades], the number of applications to Vanderbilt has more than doubled. Recent graduates from a wide range of personal backgrounds feel comfortable at Vanderbilt, and those positive stories are the strongest testimony for the next group of prospective students.”
Schneider, who has spent the better part of her life either on Vanderbilt’s campus or right across the street from it at USN, has her own take on the university’s remarkable transformation: “As an alumna, I realize it hurts when our children are not able to get in. That’s sad, but it’s certainly not personal.
“It’s just a new day at Vanderbilt. The university is now in a new league. Over the years it has gotten discovered. It was once just a quiet Southern school, but now it’s on a bigger stage.”
As first-year students arrive on campus each August, Vanderbilt’s undergraduate admissions officers fan out around the world. They’ll visit more than 47,000 students across the U.S. and in 46 different countries. By January more than 30,000 students—most of them blindingly well-qualified—will have applied for an entering class of just 1,600 spots. For the ones who do gain admission, Vanderbilt will actively pursue them to enroll. The admissions office will continue sweating the final details of the incoming class well into the summer, working with an ever-shifting group of highly qualified applicants on the waitlist. Then, a full year after the cycle began, a new class has been put in place and the whole process starts again.
To someone not intimately familiar with college admissions in 2015, this annual exercise can seem bewildering, to say the least. But dig a little deeper, and it becomes plain that Vanderbilt is pursuing a thoughtful, sophisticated strategy to recruit the very best talent, while also following a bold social mission to open the possibility of a premier higher education to more groups from more places than ever before.
Sitting at the helm of this increasingly complex undertaking is Douglas Christiansen, Vanderbilt’s vice provost for university enrollment affairs and dean of admissions and financial aid. Recruited from Purdue University in fall 2006, Christiansen is, say many in higher education, one of the most highly regarded administrators in the field, known for his ability to combine the goals of academia with a mastery of the sprawling details encompassing today’s enrollment management operations.
Admissions, Christiansen explains, has become just one aspect of a much larger picture. “It’s really the science behind how we think about putting a class together as it relates to everything: outstanding academic achievement, ethnic diversity, geographic diversity, socioeconomic diversity, who’s going to prosper in our class, how many beds we need to fill, what revenue we need, how much can we spend on financial aid.”
And there’s the rub for college admissions today: Finding a class of 1,600 students each year goes far beyond selecting those with the best grades or the right extracurricular activities. In addition to building an engaging, diverse intellectual community that develops critical thinking and leadership skills for students, there are larger ramifications for Vanderbilt. These span short-term issues such as maintaining school rankings and operating budgets to more profound, long-term questions regarding the kind of alumni who will shepherd Vanderbilt—financially and intellectually—from one generation to the next.
“Smart institutions, like Vanderbilt, are the ones that are out there recruiting aggressively,” says Robin Mamlet, a senior partner at Chicago-based executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, which specializes in higher education placement. Mamlet, the former dean of admissions and financial aid at Stanford University, originally helped bring Christiansen to Vanderbilt.
“I get how this looks to parents and alumni—it’s like sticker shock, only it’s admissions shock,” says Mamlet, who is co-author of the book College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step (2011, Three Rivers).
Just as any admissions officer will tell students and parents, there’s no magic formula for getting into a college like Vanderbilt. So too is there no Platonic ideal of what an incoming first-year class looks like. Each year, for example, Vanderbilt will need a certain number of high-achieving musicians to place in the Blair School of Music or talented future teachers to place in Peabody College. Predicting exactly what that applicant pool will look like is impossible until it actually comes in.
Nevertheless, Vanderbilt under Christiansen’s leadership has a strong idea of the type of smart, richly diverse community it wants to build each year. “In addition to academic achievement, that community must have all different backgrounds, ideas and experiences in order to come together,” he says.
To hear John Gaines, director of Vanderbilt’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions, tell it, the quick-and-dirty mental model boils down to something like this: Who would you like to see sharing a room or a meal together on The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons, where all first-year students live? Imagine, Gaines says, a young woman from Finland interacting with a student from New Trier High School in suburban Chicago.
“You can play that out in a hundred different ways—the student from inner-city California who gets matched as a roommate with someone from rural Mississippi, and on and on. It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “The work that has happened with The Ingram Commons, in conjunction with the development of Opportunity Vanderbilt as a funding model, has enabled us to bring students together in a way we weren’t able to before and then place them in an environment that helps them interact in a way they weren’t able to before.” Even student involvement with faculty has benefited, Gaines says, citing the results of internal attitude surveys taken before and after The Ingram Commons opened that indicate a far greater comfort level with professors thanks to the many informal lectures and other activities offered.
This diverse community not only benefits students during their years at Vanderbilt. By building relationships with students from all walks of life, Vanderbilt graduates enter the workforce with the experiences and insights necessary to address the complex issues facing society.
If that’s the amorphous, X-factor side of the admissions ledger, there’s another data-driven side of the process. Working in close partnership with the Vanderbilt Institutional Research Group (VIRG), any of the nearly 80 people who get involved with evaluating an application has access to a wealth of statistics about both current and past enrollment trends.
In taking this kind of yin-and-yang approach, each application is reviewed and rated by at least two trained, experienced readers. The file is then marked for one of three paths: “Recommend Admit,” “Recommend Deny” or “Send to Committee.” If it’s the last path, the application goes to a five-member admissions committee that decides who among the “muddy middle,” as Gaines calls it, will gain admission and who will be put on the waitlist.
As part of each decision round, this committee meets in a sparse conference room in the attic of the Old Gym (now a prospective student welcome center for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions), where data is projected onto three screens showing the previous year’s class statistics, an overview of the current year’s applicant pool, and any relevant pieces of an application that are under discussion, such as a high school transcript, teacher recommendations or an essay. As portrayed in the Tina Fey movie Admission, an officer overseeing a geographic region will be in the room making the case for a student in her territory. Unlike the movie, officers aren’t there to deliver soaring, impassioned speeches, but rather to provide background information about a particular applicant or region. For example, a student under discussion may be the only person in his geographic area to have received a certain award or test score, while plenty of students in another region may have done so. “It’s all about context,” Gaines says.
For the many reams of data that the team reviews, however, it’s impossible not to get emotionally invested in applicants, says Tricia Blumenthal, associate director of undergraduate admissions and a member of the committee. “You’ll laugh out loud sometimes, and you’ll absolutely cry sometimes as you realize what a student has gone through just to apply here,” Blumenthal says. “And that’s the hard part: You can’t vote yes for 95 percent of them.”
The same three-path process is used in two application rounds of binding early decision, which typically results in filling about half the class by mid-February. It’s used again in the nonbinding regular-decision round, which is completed by late March.
FILLING THE PIPELINE
If choosing from such a vast pool of highly qualified students is so difficult, why spend the time, money and energy to encourage so many to apply? It’s a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. The reason Vanderbilt attracts the kind of high school talent that would excel at any of the world’s most selective schools has to do partly with increased recruiting in regions where the school traditionally lacked much of a presence, such as the Northeast, California and the Pacific Northwest.
That’s a piece of the admissions puzzle that Gaines says he frequently finds himself explaining to alumni and other regional supporters. “For people in Nashville—or Louisville or Atlanta—they often don’t realize how many other people have discovered Vanderbilt,” he says. “They’ve always known Vanderbilt is a great school, but they don’t realize that now students in California, in Oregon and around the world are finding out about us. But they are—in big ways—and they’re applying.”
Many of those helping spread the word about Vanderbilt are alumni themselves. To date, the Commodore Recruitment Programs (CoRPs), a partnership with Vanderbilt University Alumni Relations, has about 1,800 trained volunteers around the world who actively attend college fairs, conduct one-on-one interviews with applicants, and speak to various groups about their Vanderbilt experiences. Gaines says CoRPs’ volunteer efforts have been invaluable for admissions, and for alumni who want to stay connected to Vanderbilt.
Christiansen’s team also has worked hard to educate students at the neglected end of the socioeconomic spectrum about college admissions in general, and Vanderbilt in particular. The school made early strides on this front, becoming the inaugural school in 1989 to partner with the Posse Foundation, an organization based in New York City that provides scholarships for high-achieving, low-income students to attend top-tier colleges. But for many years those types of relationships were limited. Today, Christiansen says, Vanderbilt partners with about 110 community-based organizations such as QuestBridge, KIPP Schools, YES Prep Public Schools in Houston and Chicago Scholars.
All these efforts point toward the single goal of persuading as much high-quality talent to apply to Vanderbilt as possible. As Christiansen and Gaines both like to say, “Good recruitment results in good selection.” At any one time Vanderbilt is in active contact with nearly 1 million potential applicants across grades 9 through 12. Two other factors Christiansen says have helped more than double Vanderbilt’s application pipeline include the opening of The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons in 2008 and the expansion of financial aid through Opportunity Vanderbilt the next year. Opportunity Vanderbilt’s focus on access to a top-tier education benefits families in both lower- to middle-income ranges—teachers, firefighters, soldiers—as well as families with more than one child in college.
In addition to higher rankings, greater selectivity and higher yield (the percentage of admitted students who ultimately decide to attend), Vanderbilt’s momentum has shown up in more qualitative ways. “We were traditionally a top-20-ranked school that, if you didn’t get into any of the others, you felt really good about coming here,” Christiansen says. “But now we recruit a student earlier and longer, helping them differentiate why Vanderbilt’s education and experience is different than Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford. So now when they’re deciding among three offers on the table, it’s become more painful for them because they know what they’d be giving up at Vanderbilt.”
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Recruiting more highly qualified and diverse students is not just a matter of institutional pride for premier schools like Vanderbilt, says Julie Park, BA’04, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in issues of racial diversity and equity in higher education. When it comes to showing a commitment to diversity, she says Vanderbilt has done well by adopting programs like the Posse Scholars and Chancellor’s Scholarship, which rewards highly talented candidates who have shown a commitment to diversity. Park herself came to Vanderbilt as a Chancellor’s Scholar.
“There’s a rich body of research showing positive gains for students learning in more diverse environments versus more homogenous surroundings,” says Park, who has written in The Washington Post and elsewhere about her experience at Vanderbilt. “You can see improvements in outcomes in areas such as critical thinking skills and leadership development.”
Park explains that most people cruise on a kind of cognitive autopilot. It’s only when confronted with a disruptive experience—understanding how someone from a different racial or ethnic culture thinks, for example—that true learning occurs. “That interaction, that cognitive dissonance, is what gets you off autopilot,” she says. “In a college setting these are powerful moments that lead to deeper learning.”
Vanderbilt’s increased recruiting efforts also have bolstered the university in terms of how bond-rating agencies such as Moody’s and S&P evaluate the school’s debt and, in turn, how that affects borrowing costs. Mamlet says these agencies look to selectivity and yield rates as proxies to indicate the level of demand for the university. “They also look at how much schools are discounting off their stated tuition,” she says. “But there’s a big difference between trying to fill a class and investing in the future.”
And yet, bond ratings, school rankings, making it on lists of the best this or that—those things pale in comparison to the wider objective of highly selective admissions, namely to find and educate the leaders of tomorrow across a growing expanse of socioeconomic and global backgrounds. “For many people, including Doug Christiansen, this is a moral imperative,” Mamlet says.
It’s also part of a much longer arc among selective colleges. Wilbur Bender, who served as dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard from 1952 to 1960, wrote in an internal policy memo at the time, “Should our goal be to select a student body with the highest possible proportions of high-ranking students, or should it be to select, within a reasonably high range of academic ability, a student body with a certain variety of talent, attitudes and backgrounds?” To Bender, once a student had passed a certain academic threshold, “the only thing that matters in terms of future impact on, or contribution to, society is the degree of personal inner force an individual has.”
Those discussions that took place at Harvard in the 1950s set U.S. academic institutions on a philosophical course that more or less continues to this day. Mamlet says schools like Stanford and others have pushed this idea to varying degrees during the intervening decades in a long race to quality. “But in the last decade,” she says, “Vanderbilt has accelerated its position faster and come further than perhaps any other school in the top 20.”
For decades the typical freshman transition from high school to college went something like this: Get paired with a stranger in the worst dorm on campus, attend a few orientation sessions, gain 15 pounds, and hope that everything works out OK.
In recent years, however, universities have increased their focus on the importance of a student’s first-year experience, pointing to, among other things, a growing body of research showing that 17- and 18-year-old brains are not yet fully developed. Vanderbilt and its peers also have found that by offering more robust support to entering first-year students, they are seeing greater retention and graduation rates.
“No two students are alike, so across higher education there has been a move to meet students where they are as far as providing them with skills and support in the areas of learning, health and safety,” says Vanessa Beasley, BA’88, associate professor of communication studies and the newly appointed dean of The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons.
In addition to helping ease students into college life, The Ingram Commons’ mix of intellectual and social life—all of which takes place in a kind of campus within a campus—has proven to be an effective recruiting tool.
“As Vanderbilt has become more selective, we really have to look at what’s distinctive about our students. We need to make sure we offer learning opportunities and co-curricular experiences that challenge them,” Beasley says.
The distinctive qualities of Vanderbilt’s diverse student body never have been more pronounced. Geographically, for example, this fall’s 1,600 incoming first-year students come from 1,060 different high schools. Most students will be the lone representatives of their high schools—and, for many, their hometowns—at Vanderbilt.
“What sets Vanderbilt apart is that we continuously work to find that sweet spot, the right mixture of challenges and support for each student. What students need when they get here may depend, in part, on the types of opportunities and experiences available to them before they arrived,” Beasley says. “And yet each student was admitted because we know she or he can succeed at Vanderbilt. So our task becomes supporting students as they make their own decisions about what that path to success will look like.”
1. Are students from Nashville—or the South—being targeted for denial?
Not at all, says Vanderbilt Director of Admissions John Gaines. But as more people discover Vanderbilt from more populous regions such as the Northeast and the West Coast, not to mention international locales, the school receives exponentially more applications for each of the 1,600 first-year spots. That means students from regions where Vanderbilt traditionally is already well-known face more competition than ever before.
2. Does a legacy student have a better chance of admission?
When the children of Vanderbilt alumni choose to apply to Vanderbilt, it is an honor to the university. Admissions officers do pay special attention to legacy status, though it does not play a major role in an application decision.
“We welcome legacy applications—they make our ‘Vanderbilt for life’ philosophy real,” says Douglas Christiansen, vice provost for university enrollment affairs and dean of admissions and financial aid. He adds that while no percentage of a first-year class is reserved for legacy applicants—and that they compete head to head with the other students—admitted legacy applicants accept their offers at a higher rate than other applicants.
3. Does the admissions office waive academic requirements for athletes?
Absolutely not. That said, there’s no magic formula for admission. Multiple factors play a role in an admissions decision, but the bottom line is that any student must be able to meet Vanderbilt’s academic standards.
4. Does applying “early decision” improve a student’s chance of being admitted?
Statistically, yes, one’s chances for admission are higher with early decision than at regular decision. Gaines says applying early is the “ultimate form” of demonstrated interest.
5. What’s the average amount of financial aid received by admitted first-year students?
The full breakdown is available online. Overall, more than 65 percent of students enrolled at Vanderbilt received some form of financial aid during the most recent school year.
6. Are all applications actually reviewed? By whom?
Not only does every application receive two reviews, but many are reviewed by five or six admissions officers. In addition to Vanderbilt’s full-time admissions officers, the university brings in experienced seasonal readers. Anyone who handles an application in any sort of evaluation role must complete several days of intense training each year.
7. Do students whose families can pay full tuition have an admissions advantage?
Vanderbilt is committed to true need-blind admissions, meaning that a student’s ability to pay has no impact on an admission decision.
8. With expanded financial aid at Vanderbilt, are merit scholarships still available?
Yes. About 250 students each year are selected to receive one of three main, merit-based full-tuition scholarships: the Ingram Scholarship (for a commitment to community service); the Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholarship (for academic achievement and leadership potential); and the Chancellor’s Scholarship (for commitment to social justice and diversity issues). In general, however, many top schools are following Vanderbilt’s lead and shifting money into need-based financial aid programs. The rationale is that anyone who gets into a top-20 school, by definition, has demonstrated significant merit; affordability then becomes the real question.
9. How big is the waitlist, and how is it used?
The size of the waitlist varies as students make their college decisions. However, Gaines says Vanderbilt uses its waitlist in a more intentional way than many other schools. He explains that each year, as the admissions office seats a class of no more than 1,600 (defined by space on The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons), they aim to have about 1,500 students enrolled by national Decision Day, May 1. From there they use the waitlist to round out any areas where there may be gaps in the class. Take note: This is the one time where demonstrated interest—conducting an interview with an alumnus or visiting campus, for example—holds sway. “The waitlist at Vanderbilt is a critical tool,” Gaines says.
Many people know that Opportunity Vanderbilt is a noble initiative having something to do with scholarships and expanded access to financial aid. But depending on one’s association with Vanderbilt, the phrase can mean different things to different audiences.
To alumni and donors it often means raising money for scholarships. To a significant number of current and prospective students, it means having access to a Vanderbilt education they otherwise may not have had. To peer institutions it’s a powerful statement of Vanderbilt’s commitment to opening opportunities for a global talent pool regardless of socioeconomic background.
In fact, it’s all those things and more, says Douglas Christiansen, Vanderbilt’s vice provost for university enrollment affairs and dean of admissions and financial aid. He points to the statement Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos made in announcing the initiative in 2008 as the philosophy that continues to guide Opportunity Vanderbilt: “We enrich Vanderbilt’s unique learning community and make it a more dynamic environment for everyone when we open our doors to highly talented and qualified students of all economic, cultural and geographical backgrounds.”
How Opportunity Vanderbilt plays out for students and their families today takes three distinct forms:
- Vanderbilt does not make undergraduate admissions decisions based on a family’s ability to pay. That applies both to U.S. citizens and to eligible non-citizens. For international students, the school does take finances into consideration.
- For admitted undergraduates Vanderbilt meets 100 percent of a family’s demonstrated need, which is defined as the difference between the total cost of attending (about $63,000 this year) and a family’s expected contribution as determined by their stated income on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
- Vanderbilt’s aid packages do not include need-based loans, but rather gifts or grants. In addition, there are no income caps—aid is determined by demonstrated need. This has led to a 72 percent decline in the number of need-based student borrowers since the program’s launch.
Drawing on many sources, including alumni gifts, university revenue, and state and federal dollars, it takes about $150 million to fund Opportunity Vanderbilt at the undergraduate level each year, Christiansen says. For academic year 2014–15, first-year Vanderbilt students alone received awards totaling nearly $43 million.
In May 2015, total gifts and pledges made to help pay for Opportunity Vanderbilt crossed the $200 million milestone. The university now aspires to double the Opportunity Vanderbilt endowment from $200 million to $400 million in the coming years.
“We find that the Opportunity Vanderbilt message of access to our world-class education based on ability, not ability to pay, resonates with both alumni and parents,” says Randy Smith, executive associate vice chancellor of development and alumni relations. “These donors want to ‘pay it forward’ by making it possible for new generations of students to enjoy the outstanding educational experience they had, or their children had, at Vanderbilt.”
For all the expense involved, however, Opportunity Vanderbilt has helped enrich the school’s educational experience for all students—and lift its profile—to an unprecedented degree.
“We are committed to offering our students a rich, diverse intellectual community, and Opportunity Vanderbilt directly supports that goal,” says Susan Wente, university provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “There’s incredible value, both in and out of the classroom, in having a student body with all types of backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints.”
A NEW IMPERATIVE FOR SCHOOLS
Vanderbilt took an early lead alongside a select handful of U.S. schools such as Harvard, MIT and Princeton in making such generous financial aid available. Today more schools are feeling pressure to offer a similar path of financial access for low- and middle-income students. Stanford, the University of Chicago, and Washington University in St. Louis, for example, announced significant financial aid expansions during the past year.
At issue is the simple fact that there are fewer high-quality applicants from modest backgrounds as compared to their wealthy peers—and even when these students do achieve in the classroom, they often don’t attend a selective college. Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that only about 10 percent of low-income students scored at the highest levels of math and reading, while 40 percent scored in the lowest percentiles—almost a reverse image of their upper-income counterparts. That’s left many selective schools with a student body that is diverse in terms of geography, ethnic backgrounds and gender. But those students typically all come from the same end of the economic spectrum.
Compounding the problem is the fact that when low-income students do perform well academically, they often assume that top-tier schools aren’t affordable and instead attend state schools or community colleges. In an unfortunate irony, these students often end up paying more out of pocket for far lower-ranked (or nonranked) schools than they would have if they had accepted admission offers from higher-ranked peers, according to a 2013 Brookings study.
INVESTING IN VANDERBILT’S FUTURE
While Opportunity Vanderbilt is designed to attract students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, Christiansen cautions that it shouldn’t be viewed as a handout. “This is an investment,” he says, noting that Opportunity Vanderbilt is one of the most powerful recruiting tools for admissions. “Vanderbilt is getting the better end of the deal on this. The money we give to the students is minimal to the value they bring to our educational process.”
Lillian “Tooty” Robertson Bradford, BA’63, believes that the scholarship she and her late husband, James C. Bradford Jr., established through Opportunity Vanderbilt will help change the lives of students who otherwise would not have been able to afford to attend. “It’s a privilege to see these students launch themselves and to be a part of that,” Bradford says. “And it’s an investment in the future for all of us.”
It’s also wrong to think that the expanded aid program is a financial free-for-all. “Just because we make it possible for people to attend Vanderbilt doesn’t mean it’s easy for every family to afford it,” says Brent Tener, director of the Office of Student Financial Aid and Undergraduate Scholarships. “They’re still going to have to work hard to come up with the money they need.” Middle-income families, for example, often are not eligible for many federal programs available to lower-income families, such as Pell Grants, and the burden of college costs can still be great for them.
The amount each family must pay is based on information supplied through the FAFSA and the College Scholarship Service profile. Both forms draw on personal income and tax data to provide schools with a detailed snapshot of a family’s finances each year. Christiansen says Vanderbilt works hard to match financial aid packages with a family’s ability to pay.